It’s a thing. Like greenwashing, whitewashing, or astroturfing. Bee-washing is big business. It’s how companies fool us into consuming more: by appeasing our sense of guilt beforehand. It’s almost like they tried to reverse engineer our resistant points against buying things we don’t need and which hurt the environment, and then systematically distracting and deluding our conscious mind so that we’ll buy their crap anyhow.
Don’t believe me? Listen to Adam Conover explain it:
From Tom’s Shoes to Burt’s Bees, to BodyShop and all the other fake do-gooder companies that attempt to make their billion dollar businesses into “aw shucks” 501(c)3s on the outside while replicating the same corporate structure as ExxonMobil, the myth of doing good through consumption is especially coopted for groups leaning on the environment.
Here are just a few beewashing advertisements I’ve recently come across:
noun /bēwäSHiNG/ 1. a form of greenwashing where a product, service, or organization is advertised as being more “bee-friendly” than it actually is
These major corporations and their support of unsustainable agriculture practices are here figured both as cause of colony collapse disorder and savior of the bees. They use their bee-washing to smokescreen their complicity in CCD.
Bees have become little more than a branding tool for most of the corporations that mention them. And some academic might potentially do an overview of all the mentions of bees by food and personal care product companies, and see how much of it would be considered bee-washing (my guess, upwards of 90%).
Here, I can only reiterate what I have stated (and will continue to state) elsewhere:
Companies should be outlawed and fined for using images of nature (whether bees, pandas, beautiful trees, sunsets, etc) until they can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are actually not destroying the material conditions for these beings and phenomena to flourish.
Short of this, we fall into necrophilic symbols, a cannibalism of the real by memes. This is just the sort of simulacra replacing life and living systems that Baudrillard warned us about.
We’re sheltering in place. We’re not going out. In some places in the world, like India, Italy, and China, their quarantines were so effective that for the first time in remembrance, one could see the Himalayas from 200 kilometers away, the canals of Venice were crystal clear, and the pollution cleared over Beijing (saving an estimated 70,000+ lives in China alone).
But not in the Netherlands. Home of capitalism and embracers of neoliberalism, why would residents here feel put out to change their patterns, to inconvenience themselves, to take this moment to reflect, rather than get things done and seize the business opportunity? We’re not a Catholic nation, so sacrifice for the community doesn’t come naturally.
And yet, as a philosopher, I sit at home, trying to get something done, while neighbors on every side of my apartment drill and cut, chisel and screw. The incessant high-pitched whiz of machines echo around the binnenplaats of our neighborhood more than ever with hammering and sawing like never before. The machines of building, rebuilding, and renovating are heavy at work in this corona quarantine. Quarantine in Dutch could be translated as ‘take advantage of this opportunity to get as much done as possible.’ All those side-project, delayed repairs, or prospective sells, are too juicy to pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Do the local inspectors inspect? Or does building just go on as fast as possible in this interim? It seems as if the construction business is booming, as eager capitalists wish to flip houses left and right. Buy low, fix up a dumpy place with bourgeois aesthetics and name-brand stoves and refrigerators, expand that kitchen by knocking out the dividing wall, et voilà! sell the house for twice as much as you bought it just a couple years back. I know this is business as usual, but during the quarantine, sometimes it seems even more cynical than usual.
I’ve also heard more low-flying propeller planes (the type that have no purpose but for ‘fun’ and polluting the atmosphere) flying overhead than ever before. While Schiphol might have reduced its daily flights, the amount of air traffic around Rotterdam, at least, seems to have barely dipped if at all.
The noise makes it hard to do my online teaching and calls at home, to do my quiet work at my improvised home office. I’m lucky to have a job that requires few supplied, and makes little noise. But part of public health as it intersects with public infrastructure is finding out how to better share our inconveniences, share our suffering more. Those working in logistics, food production, service work, and transportation, need our support in myriad ways. As in a war effort, there is much to be done to work together to support each other. Those who see this coronavirus quarantine as merely a holiday have an ethical duty to reduce their travel and externalities, and simplify their lives. Since coronavirus is a respiratory virus that affects the lungs, clean air as good medicine. We should maintain that we don’t pollute our neighbors’ lungs with sawdust for our own gain.
I propose that the Mad Max building explosion isn’t the only way to do a quarantine (and perhaps isn’t the most effective for public health, either). Instead of this building craze, doing all the obnoxious things that one would have done had time otherwise permitted, I offer a different tack. To deal with the particulate matter pollution, the noise pollution, and the general disturbance and unrest of motors, cement mixers, falling lumber, skill saws, power drills and other implements of machine-driven building, I propose that during this quarantine period that all building stores could also close, and people take a rest. Allowing ourselves to take a collective breath, might open space for reflecting on the purpose of our pursuits, if only for a month. This would provide a much needed exhalation from the Protestant Work Ethic that Max Weber so articulately burlesqued.
The compulsion to stay busy in many ways is a (mostly) healthy coping mechanism. In times of crisis, with loss of routine, throwing oneself into a new project – especially a physically demanding or potentially lucrative one – seems like a good solution. The stoics, however, cautioned otherwise. There’s a reason why most religions have a Sabbath of one sort of another, a regular, cyclical holy day on which all activity stops, and we rest from the dynamo of constant work and preoccupation that puts food on the table, shelters us, and makes the world go around. Because unless we take regular periods of reflection – conscious stops to our business – we might be mistaken into assuming that being busy is an end unto itself; that the constant activity is the purpose of life, instead of the play, reflection, connection to one’s family, friends, and nature that are the fruits of our labor.
We could see this corona quarantine as an extended Sabbath. As a moment when the headstrong resentful frustrated young men give up on their aggressive urges to gun their motors on their motorcycles to beat their chests in antiquated displays of male dominance. When we reduce our grocery shopping to once a week, and take up other, more reflective projects. When we visit those places which bring us joy and renewal, and linger a while, without the pressures of returning to meet stringent schedules. And that we put our ambitious projects on pause for a moment – especially if these create dust and mess (aural, visual, kinetic, or otherwise) that negatively affect our neighbors and community.
Precisely this return to community is the paradoxical opportunity here in this crisis. In every state of exception, we can either barrel on with business as usual, seeing everything as a nail because all we have is a hammer; or choose wisely to reflect on the ends of our society and our role in it. The government of Amsterdam has recently chosen to do the latter, adopting a donut economics model of providing a social floor and acknowledging the ecological ceiling of human activity. This is a laudable model for other cities and countries to follow. Infrastructural violence contributes to social injustices stemming from pandemics hitting the poor and marginalized the most, but also climate crisis and gentrification present asymmetrical harms due to the same underlying mechanisms. Realizing the moral truth that it is non-optional to take care of those in our community most vulnerable, as well as belatedly honoring the limits to growth, offers hope that humans don’t end up just doing the same damn thing after another, unreflectively, to paraphrase Arnold Toynbee. Adopting measures going to the origins and not just the symptoms of emergencies allows humanity to break free from deterministic loops which playing back the same mistakes generation after generation.
I work at night now, to enjoy the relative silence. The main streets still roar, but at least the buzz saws desist. As I pause, I wonder what it would be like for silence to reign. What would we feel in our urban environments? What feelings are we pushing away by compulsively motoring on? How majestic would our cities feel, if for once, if for only a moment, we allowed the stillness and silence to work on us?
Si estén en Santiago de Chile, porfa venga a esta charla que voy a dar en ingles martes, el 17 de diciembre.
El Instituto de Ciencia Política, invita a la charla “The Promise and Perils of Carbon Taxes for Inclusive Prosperity”, presentada por el profesor Yogi Hendlin, Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative, Erasmus University Rotterdam, el martes 17 de diciembre, a las 11:00 horas, en la sala de Consejo del Instituto, 2do piso de la Facultad.
Many colleagues and students ask me what books or authors I would recommend. So, I’ve decided to start an archive of the best tools on the web, and the most impactful books I know of for social and personal evolution.
(this is a work in progress, that I will be iteratively updating)
For the last 8 summers, Switzerland has been wrapping glaciers in blankets to stop them melting. These desperate strategies are increasingly becoming more common as our ecosystems unravel, ecotourism becomes threatened, and local people’s semiotic world falls apart. The Estonian philosopher Ivar Puura has coined the term “semiocide” to describe what happens to our familiar environmental scaffolding falls away. The violence of climate change is precisely that of diaspora, it is a destruction of continuity, of community, of memory, of what James Gibson calls our “affordances.”
Realism in climate change has always taken a back seat to sustaining the unsustainable, as Ingolfür Bluhdorn has pointed out. We have neglected taking action because we have failed to realize how delicately and intimately our fundamental humanness is tied up with this fluke of stable predictable climate and biodiversity. The industrialized western mind too quickly found it plausible to remain human while dehumanizing our historical environments. The pipe dream of infinite fungibility, attempting to conquer the irreversible arrow of time, has left us with no more capital in our pockets. We have converted life into digital bits, and our digital bits can never buy back life.
The modelling of exchange has dominated our miscalculations. Discounting has reigned as the controlling paradigm, when the few metrics ill-fitted for values beyond exchange monetary value have even entered the accounting process.
Thus, we find ourselves covering glaciers with blankets instead of simplifying life. The quixotic act serves only to further burlesque the limpness of international governance of runaway corporate fossil fuels industries.
There is not enough blankets in the world to cover the glaciers that will need covering. We now engage in these ridiculous fake-care situations, that are feel good, not efficacious. If those same Swiss citizens engaged in direct action to stop flying and driving, and returned Switzerland to a local, pre-fossil fuels economy, they would be much more effective in saving their charismatic glaciers than by these overdramatized overtures of love and dedication.
While covering glaciers may make for good Extinction Rebellion entertainment, the energy used to pop the popcorn to watch such a spectacle is not even worth the future warming to even enjoy anymore the stale popcorn.
We need to wake up to the elephants in the room – and stop immediately oil, coal, and gas drilling, for the rest of eternity.
I gave a talk a few weeks ago for the Erasmus Sustainability Hub which is now online. I had a great time being interviewed by Wallerand Bazin. They did a great job too in assembling a set of links to some of the major themes I covered. I hope you’ll check out their blog series and support this new podcast.
The original article, published here, takes a rather pro-industry “we’ll engineer our way out of this” approach. Rather than observing a fundamental problem in putting artificial inputs unsustainably into agriculture, the article plays to the upbeat agribusiness narrative of getting over “minor” problems, and that the “health” of a business or industry should and does outweigh the health and well-being of life on earth. A bit quixotic, sure, but such are the narratives of industrial epidemics.
In this blog post, I will take this WSJ article on Bayer’s glyphosate as a paradigmatic example of what George Orwell called “Newspeak,” and what Harry Frankfurt calls “Bullshit”–the use of words and framing to sophisticly make the weaker argument the stronger and the stronger the weaker. In other words, we’re dealing here with the oh-so-common muscular relativism which subordinates truth to power.
Bayer AG BAYRY -0.67% plans to invest €5 billion ($5.64 billion) on developing new ways to combat weeds over the next decade, as the German chemicals and pharmaceuticals giant seeks to win back trust in its business in the wake of thousands of lawsuits alleging its Roundup herbicide causes cancer.
Exhibit A of not taking responsibility: call for more “Research” when plenty has been done, and most says that we need to go to organic regional farming with reduced or no inputs.
A big legal fight over the blockbuster weedkiller—inherited with its takeover of Monsanto Co. last year—has plunged Bayer into one of the worst crises in its 155-year history. The company has lost the first three jury trials to plaintiffs claiming Roundup gave them non-Hodgkin lymphoma, with the highest award topping $2 billion. In response, its shares have almost halved over the past year.
Both Bayer and Monsanto had their origins in poison manufacture, so it makes sense that Bayer would be interested in buying Monsanto. It was a huge mistake, but then again, if you are Bayer, and see Monsanto as a profitable buy, then you know the sort of company you keep. If you’re a shareholder in Bayer, you can only say mea culpa.
It’s not like Bayer’s stock price is going to go up either, any time soon, if ever.
While Bayer is appealing the jury verdicts and continues to vigorously defend the safety of Roundup and the active ingredient glyphosate, its announcement Friday shows how the company is being forced to change tack under pressure from its legal woes. Bayer said glyphosate would retain an important role in its portfolio but that it was also “committed to offering more choice for growers.”
Bayer is not changing tack, it is taking the tried and untrue denialist path of most resistance against accountability, responsibility, sustainability, and science. We don’t need “growers” to be yoked to Bayer, Monsanto, or any other agribusiness. We need them to be free, supported by each other and society, and not in debt to a chemical manufacturer for its survival.
The company said the €5 billion earmarked for herbicide development over the next 10 years would largely fit into the annual spending of €2.4 billion that it had previously estimated for agriculture R&D in coming years. Herbicide research will represent about one-fifth of Bayer’s overall agriculture research investment, and the commitment announced Friday will include chemical research and regulatory expenses as well as new computer-driven farm-management services.
So, the WSJ’s “news” turns out to be no news at all. Instead WSJ is touting industry lies packaged as news in order to attempt to give a “convincing” face-saving “strategy” that Bayer is actually attempting to do something different. Something different is not going to make Bayer more money. If people spray less, they use less chemical, and thus make less money. They’re simply, as a transnational company hell-bent on profit above all (including god?), never going to opt for less. I guess technologization could be an excuse to demand more debt from farmers, but is that even necessary?
The company also said it would cut its “environmental impact” by 30% by 2030 through new technologies and making weedkiller use more precise, and that it would also be more transparent about the safety of its products. These measures, it said, would address health and environmental concerns Bayer has faced since buying Monsanto. Bayer also took out newspaper advertisements to promote its message.
To have a chemical and poison manufacturer say they are going to “cut” their “environmental impact” through “precision” is like death drones say they’re going to cut their kill-counts through “smart bombs.” It simply doesn’t happen and doesn’t exist. Any anybody who buys that rhetoric is doing so full well that they are swallowing some pretty grotesque bullshit. Bayer being more transparent about safety, too would be easy: publish all of your unpublished studies online. We have public documents now showing that Monsanto knew in the early 1980s about the carcinogenic properties of glyphosate. Why did we have to wait more than 30 years for IARC to come to the same conclusions? How are we going to incentivize transparency for a company that would lose even more stock price if they were honest. Again, the words belie the actual situation. Managing transparency – lying about and pretending to be transparent – is not the same thing as independent 3rd-party oversight, real transparency. The icing on the Pinocchio cake is that Bayer is more interested in advertising how it wants to reform than it actually is in reforming (maybe dissolve the company and pay reparations to farmers harmed by its chemicals?).
A vote of no-confidence like this means that the company should come under new leadership at the least, get rid of their toxic Monsanto asset, and trigger public oversight of the company.
Bayer and other agricultural companies are already marketing new herbicides, as glyphosate’s widespread use on U.S. farms has contributed to weeds like palmer amaranth and waterhemp developing resistance to the world’s most widely used weedkiller.
The last thing we need is the next glyphosate. “Now More Deadly than Ever!” Instead, shifting away from the stranglehold of the chemical industry on agriculture is the only way humans and the rest of the planet are going to survive this thing.
Bayer said Friday that with glyphosate’s global success came “widespread use, weed resistance, and in some instances unintended misapplication.”
We call this chess move “responsibilization,” the offloading of corporate responsibility onto consumers. Its CSR in reverse, while making it seem as if the consumers have been “bad.” Really great to blame the victims of the producers’ poisons.
Monsanto in recent years launched a new herbicide based on the chemical dicamba, along with soybean and cotton seeds genetically engineered to withstand the spray.
When all else fails, repackage poison in a new name and pretend people don’t notice.
Some farmers have said the more-powerful weedkiller drifted onto neighboring fields and damaged nonmodified crops. Agricultural researchers estimate that millions of acres of crops have been damaged by drifting dicamba. Bayer has attributed the crop damage mainly to farmers misapplying the spray. In 2018 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said farmers could continue to use dicamba under tighter restrictions.
Because Monsanto’s hat trick was to create GMOs resistant to their poisons, if their poisons get on plants that aren’t engineered to soak up unlimited amounts of highly toxic poisons they die. But guess what? Nothing in this universe stays in “its place.” That’s a pipedream of old white men, viz. Descartes and his gang that thought that you could abstract something, manipulate it, and then reintroduce it into the world as if that abstraction really existed. In critical theory, they call this “reification.” Drift happens. How could it now? If you pee in your own swimming hole, that pee is going to go everywhere, including on you, and those ducks, and your friends. Not cool. Quit pissing out poisons.
As if the solution to the chemical anthropocene were just more herbicides. Again, this “engineering approach” to digging ourselves deeper into the problems we created with profit-driven synthetic chemical thinking is parasitic on actual alternative that would free us from such chemical slavery.
The legal battle over Roundup could take years to resolve as Bayer has said it would appeal decisions and wait for the outcome of a few more cases before considering a settlement.
Bayer will not win 13,400 lawsuits. Not in the US, or elsewhere. The classic technique of buying time and delay tactics mean that every day they refuse to pay up and settle or admit wrongdoing (which our handy documents here show daily that there is more and more malfeasance), is another day that they can still make a buck off of selling glyphosate products.
Investors say Bayer’s stock is likely to struggle until there is more clarity over how much the litigation will end up costing the company. Analysts’ estimates range from €5 billion to €25 billion.
These are conservative estimates based on class-action. The tobacco MSA cost about $300 billion. Let’s see worldwide what happens to Bayer when lawsuits in other parts of the world start kicking in.
Bayer is appealing all jury verdicts so far and has vigorously defended the safety of Roundup.
Vigorously defending the safety of a product or chemical has nothing to do with whether that product is safe or not. Merely, it is part of a process that has been set up so that if a company were to admit guilt, they would lose everything, so instead, they are incentivized to lie and fight as if the company depended on it, because it does. This “too big to fail” approach which does not allow for the admission of guilt and corrective measures without imploding companies doesn’t work. We need to have civil society involved much earlier on, so that the hazards of these products never get to their world-historical proportions which they do today. We need to change our laws to incentivize humility, epistemological and ethical, instead of creating rabid denialists. In a strange way, denialism is a product of a risk regulatory framework that doesn’t allow for people to admit mistakes, pay the consequences, and move on.
In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a World Health Organization unit, classified glyphosate as likely having the potential to cause cancer in humans. That classification triggered the wave of lawsuits. Bayer argues hundreds of studies and regulatory decisions around the world show Roundup and glyphosate are safe when used as directed.
“Safe when used as directed” is another industry-standard phrase. I guess guns are safe when used as directed as well, but nothing in existence is ever used as directed. Unless you pressure test every product for all of its uses, you’re negligent, and should be held accountable so. Monsanto would have lost billions of dollars if they had ever encouraged glyphosate to be used “as directed.”
In the U.S., where Roundup has become integral to farming,Costco Wholesale Corp. recently pulled Roundup herbicides from its stores. Certain cities in California, Florida, Minnesota and elsewhere have also forbidden use of glyphosate weedkillers on municipal property while other farm-state lawmakers have defended the herbicides.
“Integral” is an interesting choice of words. Monsanto for 50 years worked to force American agriculture into its pocket, through path dependent forced coupling of seed and herbicide.
Several European countries, including France and Austria, are considering phasing out glyphosate. Early this year, a French court banned a Roundup product with the ingredient, even though it still has a European Union seal of approval. A senior executive of German public rail operator Deutsche Bahn AG told a German weekly Friday that the company together with the German environment ministry would research alternatives for combating weeds along its 33,000 kilometers of tracks.
After the German Minister of Agriculture went against Merkel and the German government’s directives to not support renewal of glyphosate in the EU, the rest of the German government decided they needed to not wait another 5 years to attend to the problems glyphosate pose to human health. The majority of their citizenry do not wish to be enslaved to a cancer-causing chemical, and no longer wish to be subjected to it. Hence, the Ministry of the Environment is taking steps throughout German society to do what failed at the EU level: protect its citizens from the harms of the next generation of poisons.
The company said it would invite scientists, journalists and representatives from nonprofits to participate in its efforts to secure re-registration of glyphosate in the EU—a review likely to trigger debate about safety. The process is expected to kick off later this year, with a vote in late 2022.
(By Ruth Bender and Jacob Bunge Updated June 14, 2019 3:02 p.m. ET)
The largess of the company to invite (and pay) scientists and others sympathetic to its cause to seduce people with good names to foul them and ruin their professional reputations for the sake of short-term financial gain is overstated. Bayer is saying that it will do everything in its power to extend its network as merchants of doubt to derail science and popular sovereignty over land and food in EU countries.
John Rawls’s (1971) notion of national self-sufficiency in terms of resources is about as far from our current globalized world as we can get, in terms of theory aimed at non-ideal applications. Globalization is a fact of life. And yet, with each displacement in our life, we have expended more and more energy to have a never-ending commodity change for each product stretched across the globe, on call and ready at hand for our whim to flick a switch and watch, do, or order something.
Just this week, a new study is out showing that our music streaming, from services such as Spotify and Apple Music, are in fact, creating billowing clouds of greenhouse gasses, leading to more destruction even as we have “virtualized” the materiality of music listening. The cloud–which after all just means storing your data on somebody else’s computers/servers and accessing it via satellite or cable/fiber-optics–is an expensive process to maintain, after all. It turns out that “owning” your own stuff in a place-based location (on your device) makes much more sense ecologically, than having it distributed all over the world and calling it in on a regular basis.
Rawls’ (1999: 39 and 106–7) aim for polity self-sufficiency suggests that a polity may not inflict negative environmental externalities on other polities, and yet, that is what the top 20% economically are doing to the bottom 80%. We (the royal, cosmopolitan, globalized western “we”) are happy to live a fabulous lifestyle as long as the carnage from our consumption are pushed out of sight and out of mind. This is precisely what Ulrich Beck refers to as the “distanciation” of the effects of our actions.
But what allows us to maintain this unsustainability is not that the top 20% don’t care about the consequences, but that we have bought into a sort of exceptionalism that suggests that we and our loved ones will be spared from the worst of the environmental fall-out. We’ve bought into American Exceptionalism Gone Wild–the rampant idea that somehow – through wealth, technology, national identity, gender, race, etc. – that we will be spared. That we are God’s Chosen One’s and can stick out our tongue and thumb our nose at the rest of the world. (Of course, such performances of behavior, implicit or explicit, prove that such people absolutely have no concept of god or powers beyond themselves.) In other words, there is a certain strata of the population, that truly believes that they will get off scot-free by cheating: barraging the world with their waste without having to clean it up or other pay for it. It is the ultimate planetary intergenerational ponzi scheme.
It is also the ultimate abdication of responibility. As we hash out details (what Freud referred to as the “narcissism of minor differences”), the world burns. And elites are quite happy about it too. Because then no nation or their people or leader has to be responsible, and can carry on with the charade. As Elinor Ostrom writes:
“Reducing emissions nowis more urgent than reaching an international agreement to reduce emissions by a given percentage, which might not be achieved for some time into the future. We do not face a situation where little harm is caused by overuse until we pass a given threshold, as may be the case with some renewable resources” (2010, 28; italics in original, bold added). No, what is at stake is the world, and nothing less. Fly, eat meat, and burn fossil fuels at your own expense, with each joule and calorie added to you account. There is no pawning off our responsibility any longer.
(Also See Bruno Latour’s Down To Earth and Michele Serre’ The Parasite)
Notes from a debrief of Philip Morris’s 1998 Litter Focus Group read: “Non-smokers tend to give smokers a lot of slack about throwing down a butt,” claiming that “throwing it on the ground eliminates fire risk,” and that litter is a “natural result of outdoor smoking areas.” For smokers, littering is a “natural part of the ritual”; an act of “rebellion”; a “small act of civil disobedience”; and an acceptable demonstration of power in “stepping on a lit object and grinding it.” To deal with the “issue” of litter, the key was “don’t be preachy,” and to have “no billboards, no advertising,” “don’t give antis any more reason to yell.”
The tobacco industry aimed to successfully frame littering, just like smoking itself, as an act of “acceptable rebellion” brings pleasure through expressing angst inexpressible elsewhere in society. Protecting and providing a safe space for these meaningless but environmentally polluting expressions of “civil disobedience” was a priority for the industry to retain and attract as many smokers as possible. It also was in the interest of other managerial regimes, such as corrupt governments to give people certain guilty pleasures that they could believe that they were being free with, so that they wouldn’t clamor for real freedoms, like clean water, clean air, a universal basic income, wealth equity, or taking their commons back.
In Erasmus University Rotterdam’s weekly online magazine Erasmus Magazine, a condensed version of my speech I gave Monday March 4th, 2019 for the Opening Ceremony of the Erasmus Sustainability Days is now published. It’s also available in Dutch [in Nederlands].
In this piece, I explore Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz’s ethological understandings of the human animal, and how certain instinctual heuristics override rational control and analysis. Using the case study of advertising, I investigate how various ways in which human life is subverted through the artificial selection of single-metric selection processes of profit. The myopia of profit even undermines itself in short-term extractivism, so it is definitionally unsustainable.
Also interrogated in this study is the way in which desires are manufactured. Using Tinbergen’s discovery of “supernormal stimuli” and Deirdre Barret’s application of this ethological finding to human epidemiology, I take a public health approach to supernormal stimuli and find that marketing and advertising strangely undermine their form of mimicry, deceiving both the intended targets and the signaler simultaneously. Analyzing sophisticated mass mimicry in contemporary culture, in both intended and unintended forms, allows for insights into how to decolonize human evolution from these insidious forms of artificial selection.
My op-ed in the American Journal of Public Health that appeared this week discusses the new tobacco waste stream of electronic cigarette waste. Electronic waste is already the fastest growing waste stream globally. Creating a new product that has no current responsible recycling infrastructure, and that may be littered widely, contributing to plastic sinks such as the Great Pacific Gyre (garbage patch) in the Pacific Ocean, is a mistake. This op-ed discusses the problem and some of the solutions that can be taken to avoid a possible environmental health and ecological disaster.
Photo of a dropped Juul vape on SF MUNI by Julia McQuoid, used with permission
Regarding this article and other research I am conducting, I also wrote a piece in the online academic blog/forum The Conversation on e-cigarettes as the Nespresso of tobacco products, environmentally speaking.
These documents give unparalleled insight into how the world’s largest and arguably most harmful corporations operate. By reading how these industries regard their own practices, the public, academics, and policy-makers can be more realistic in assessing the rhetoric and claims of toxic industries.
These documents also point to how industries have worked closely with government organizations to cover up bad science and mislead the public. These documents show the important steps that must be taken to restore the credibility of scientific research in the public eye.
The great American newspapers have shot themselves in the foot. In the race against online media and decentralized user-based content, when they haven’t been bought up by conglomerates with the intention to destroy them or use them as organs of ideology, newspapers have repeatedly cranked up the sensationalism, obscured good reporting with blaring ads, and made themselves irrelevant.
The San Francisco Chronicle, our stalwart liberal rag of the Bay Area, regularly obscures its first page with these cover-up inserts that blot out half of the cover with some strident mock-serious ad. While of course they are doing this (1) to obscure the content so people have to buy the paper to read the front page, and moreover, (2) for much-needed revenue, this is a losing proposition. In an era where content is given away for free in order to produce a sale—the shrewd notion of free tasters to lure in the curious, obscuring your headlines deaden curiosity by the miserly action of deliberately obscuring the little free content newspapers show on the upper half of the first page.
Revenue can be had through special offers and tie-ins with exclusive companies. Exclusivity should go hand-in-hand with exquisite reporting. Truly unique newspapers, which provide novel rather than recycled content, have thick social capital that they can draw on for higher ad prices, for special offers with honored establishments, affiliate programs, and other arbiters of power. This, rather than sales, is really the primary income stream. But the moment that quality goes down, that uniqueness becomes a liability rather than a treasure, and conformity to the sterile standards of NewsCorp reigns, newspapers become desperate enterprises. They scramble in shambles to keep up the facade of sophistication while serving up only fluff—and still are bemused at dwindling readerships and relevance. Relevance is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Investigative journalism, thoughtful, unorthodox yet principled reporting, and the courage to take stands on controversial issues for the sake of the polity define and build the reputation of news businesses.
Diversity in news reporting is needed now more than ever. The dilution of debate to shrill assertions of opinion, often attached with ad hominum uncivil behavior has overwhelmed the 4th estate as fake news. Like the replacement of fact with self-interested, self-promoting fiction (oleaginously patinated as “alternative facts”) has become a major force in monopoly-controlled news companies. The notion of the “free press” even sounds quaint in 2018. While some online groups like Civil aim to harness the trust-embedded authentication of blockchain to develop a new form of press, at best, one has to choose and pick from the grey literature amongst the deluge of SEO (search engine optimized) websites that pay and play to have higher Google rankings. Thus, whatever real journalism that exists, in our quixotic market economy, gets buried at the bottom; while the froth and disinformation rises to the top (in part, because it is financially interested to a magnitude that real journalism never has been and never could be).
So, to remake themselves, brick-and-mortar news agencies producing physical (and electronic) products, must lean in to Cory Doctorow’s adage that “Information doesn’t want to be free. People do.” This means giving people the best news agencies have to offer, for free, if possible, with longer, more detailed versions available for purchase (or for favors, such as re-posting, affiliate programs, etc.). Countless creative win-win concepts exist for the flagging newspaper business—if only they take the moral, political, and economic high-ground and learn to adapt rather resist our strange new information environment.
My new article, “Is This Man the Elon Musk of E-Waste?” in my favorite popular science online magazine Nautilus, describes the Right to Repair movement, and the necessity to move from a linear manufacturing process built on planned and perceived obsolescence to a circular economy.
If we are to combat the 99 billion pounds of e-waste produced per year, ending up incinerated, in lakes and rivers, and trashing our communities and the lives of future generations, we’re going to need to mandate manufactures of electronics such as Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, IBM, Dell, and all the other major players, to engineer products that can DIY be taken apart, repaired, and built to last.
My interview with Eric Lundgren, his last before he was sent to prison for creating 28,000 Microsoft Windows restore CDs meant for refurbishing computers that otherwise would end up as e-waste, describes the necessity for financial mechanisms to incentivize companies and consumers to place e-waste back into an (dis)assembly line of reuse, reduce, recycle.
Lundgren has championed the right for electronics to be repaired rather than tossed by staging high-profile recycling demonstrations including his Guinness Book of World Records farthest driving on a single charge electric car (999 miles with 90% recycled materials including recycled hybrid batteries) and his flagship solar-powered e-waste recycling factory.
I appreciate the comment on the article made by Ryan Shaw, who wrote:
Mr. Lundgren has done more with far less than what Musk started with so I don’t think the comparison does Lundgren justice (although I am a huge Musk fan). Maybe someday if Tesla starts a car rebuild program to re-use scrapped cars the title would be, “Elon Musk is the Eric Lundgren of car manufacturing.”
Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability is associated with the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), the international environmental agency for local governments which evaluates and present the methods and tools necessary to achieve local sustainable development worldwide.
My article suggests that by understanding the origins of the Movimiento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (MST) as a government-driven clash between the state-sanctioned land claims of indigenous peoples (the Kaingang, in this case) and landless peasants, groups mounting environmental justice campaigns can fruitfully work together in solidarity with other groups. Through analyzing this case study, the weakness of environmental justice movements, I claim, arises when marginalized groups are willing to accept land or other concessions not at the cost of those best off, but off the backs of groups even more marginalized than themselves.
The tendency for government concessions responding to successful protests by borrowing from the resources of the poor to redistribute them to those most fervently clamoring for change, rather than disrupting the status quo and redistributing concentrated land and wealth holdings among the rich, is precisely the problem many environmental justice movements historically and today face.
Hegemony serves as a useful analytic through which to process of distal transfer of resources (from periphery to center) indicative of colonialism. Many environmental justice crises arise from the same properties that arose during historical colonialism and its aftermath, but are not confined to it. Resolving unequal distributions of labor according to gender is another aspect which environmental justice movements such as the MST have aggressively sought to ameliorate, even if such entrenched hierarchies still are actively being deconstructed.
The 2018 Biosemiotics Gathering at UC Berkeley organized by myself and Terry Deacon takes place June 17-20 at the International House. Please see www.biosemiotics.life for more information. The Biosemiotics schedule can be found here.
Public health researchers interested in helping smokers would do well to critically appraise the public statements, policies, and actions of tobacco and nicotine dealers, especially as these are strictly for-profit companies beholden to their lexical priority of fiduciary responsibility increasing shareholder value at all costs.
Rather than bandwagoning on nicotine determinism, addiction is a biopsychosocial disease with lobbying and advertising as disease vectors.
News media on the paper appears in The Outline and other interviews.
The Outline writes:
Publicly, Philip Morris has been willing to admit that cigarettes are addictive since 1998—but would only cop to the role of nicotine in forming an addiction. Yet privately, the company knew that social, psychological, and environmental factors are also central to addiction and how difficult it is to quit smoking. In other words, addiction was never just about nicotine, and Philip Morris knew it.
the researchers hope to remind public health officials that tobacco addiction is about more than just nicotine, and that there isn’t enough long-term data to show whether “reduced harm products” actually benefit public health. Even Philip Morris recognized this.
In other words, they said, PM’s ‘opportunistic’ shift from denying to affirming nicotine’s addictiveness was driven not by a substantive change in scientific understanding but by public, regulatory, and legal pressures.
While Philip Morris publicly acknowledged nicotine’s addictiveness in 2000, the study’s authors suggest that the company scapegoated the chemical as the solitary driver of addiction. By placing the blame on nicotine, company scientists drew attention away from a potential public health focus on biological, social, psychological, and environmental factors that could help people quit smoking….
For addiction researchers, public health researchers, and smokers, it’s clear that smoking is about so much more than the nicotine. But this analysis suggests that a major tobacco company attempted to steer the focus toward only nicotine, decreasing the effectiveness of interventions that could help people quit.
More like a cover up. An analysis funded by the US National Cancer Institute compared the company’s public position on addiction with what was being discussed within company walls. It found that throughout the 2000s Philip Morris reinforced the idea that nicotine’s pharmacology was the main driver of smoking addiction. But internally, company scientists were saying there was bit more to it than that. Addiction was the result of “interconnected biological, social, psychological, and environmental determinants,” with nicotine just one component.
Here I will attempt to gather and decode euphemisms (saccharine words covering up the dismal reality, e.g., climate change for global warming) and dysphemisms (derogatory terms for neutral ones, e.g., warmist for people who acknowledge the facts of global warming) of corporate-speak.
“Crop Protection Agents” = pesticides
Example: Philip Morris attempting to use the natural anti-pest properties of tobacco to make the claim that tobacco is better for the environment than food crops (remember the neonicotinoid pesticides that are decimating bee and butterfly populations? They come from tobacco)
My new lexicon entry in the Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics on “Fungi Ethics” is online. It can be accessed here. Fungi ethics, which is closely allied to plant ethics, describes how fungi–both for better and worse–are forever imbricated in our food systems. Fungi both destroy and enable crops. Virtually every terrestrial plant is threaded-through with endophytic fungi. A further majority trees and many plants require mycelial mycorrhizae to flourish, and will flag without these crucial extensions and transmitters of their root structure.
I am inspired by recycled electronics. IT Asset Partners (ITAP) recently posted a video about it’s ragtag recycled electronic car surpassing in range the major three manufacturers’ (Tesla, Chevy Volt, and Nissan Leaf) top vehicles. ITAP director Eric Lundgren stresses that we should be reusing electronics rather than reducing them to their elemental components, as this process wastes all the work that went into making these parts, and it takes energy, water, and waste products in order to take apart and reuse the materials in a stripped down form. Lundgren writes,
re-use is the purest form of recycling. it creates zero carbon footprint. re-using parts/components within broken/obsolete electronics is called “hybrid recycling”. this is a much-needed and often missing part of the recycling ecosystem.’
Lundgren, who has come under attack by Microsoft for his efforts in refurbishing and distributing junked computers in a misplaced lawsuit, has made a recycled electric car for $13,000 that outpaces Tesla, Chevy, and Nissan by at least 50 miles.
The question of what is to happen with the millions of electric car batteries after their cars are junked needs to be addressed now, rather than waving the hand in a mañana fashion.
In the Bay Area, and probably all around California, I have been seen at bus stops and on buses a very disturbing ad. What is disturbing about this advertisement, is that whoever made it failed to understand adolescent psychology. The ad says:
Underage drinking and driving: the ultimate party foul
So what’s wrong with this statement? The key word is “underage.” What this implies, is that drinking and driving if you are 21 or older, is not “the ultimate party foul, but it’s something else.” And that something else, can only be less than a big deal compared to under-aged drinking and driving. So, it’s simultaneously telling people over 21 that drinking and driving is much much worse if you are under 21, and it’s also telling people who are under 21 that it’s not as bad if you’re over 21 and drink and drive. Whichever end of the threshold you’re on, the ad challenges you to not think of drinking and driving as such as that bad of a thing.
As we know from research on children and advertising, all you have to do to make something cool, is to say “only adults can do it.” This institutes the no-kids-allowed forbidden fruit policy that precisely draws kids to do whatever they’re not supposed to do. The tobacco industry and the alcohol industry have made use of this knowledge to sell their products to underage youth for decades. So it’s baffling that the American Ad Council, which posts these public service announcements, would create a PSA like this, which completely undermines the very position one would think they’re trying to take (i.e., that nobody, especially young people, should drink and drive). What this amounts to, is simply that they need child psychologists and cultural semioticians to vet all of their Ad work. I volunteer for that position. Because as it stands, they’re messaging is creating the very opposite effect which they intend.
As Freudenberg writes, “Some industry-sponsored ‘Drink Responsibly’ campaigns, for example, use ‘strategic ambiguity’ to create messages that mean one thing to young people (e.g., ‘don’t drink too much’) and another to their parents (‘don’t drink if you’re under 21’). By telling each group what they want to hear, these advertisements offer alcohol companies positive publicity without jeopardizing market share or the recruitment of new customers” (p. 33). What is uncanny, is that Freudenberg is writing about the alcohol industry’s own fake corporate social responsibility campaigns, rather than the the American Ad Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Association.
Freudenberg N. Lethal But Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health. New York: Oxford University Press; 2014.
(Screenshot from the webpage full of tepid underage memes that have a lot to do with minimizing the actual potential costs of driving drunk, let alone the long-term and short-term health effects and vulnerability from excessive alcohol use)
Just as bad, the rape-prone advice “crash at their place” could cause these agencies a lawsuit if they’re not careful. It turns out that the website is no better than their ill-conceived tips.
When I lived in Germany, there were lots of ads on the streets against teen rape and date rape, especially alcohol fueled. Where are the ads broaching this important subject in the US? Do we just pretend it doesn’t happen? How irresponsible is that?